Public inconvenience: how lockdown caused a loo crisis

“Google data for the warm May bank holiday weekend showed an 136% uptick in visits to parks and open spaces. Yet public toilets have been closed over concerns about Covid-19 transmission in such shared, confined spaces. With limited public toilets available – and cafes, shops and pubs also closed – it is perhaps no surprise that many Brits have answered nature’s call outside. But is there a responsible way to wee in the wild?”

[East Devon District Council to discuss reopening more public toilets www.sidmouthherald.co.uk ]

Summer has arrived, once more delivering its sensorial pleasures: the clink of glasses out on a patio, the sound of music drifting from open windows, the sight of barbecue smoke billowing. But this year, you may notice something else on the summer breeze: the stench of urine.

Since lockdown was relaxed in the UK, tales of overcrowded parks lined with men urinating into bushes have abounded. So, too, have stories of beaches peppered with dirty pants, or forests sullied with babies’ wet wipes.

Arguably, such scenarios are inevitable. Google data for the warm May bank holiday weekend showed an 136% uptick in visits to parks and open spaces. Yet public toilets have been closed over concerns about Covid-19 transmission in such shared, confined spaces. With limited public toilets available – and cafes, shops and pubs also closed – it is perhaps no surprise that many Brits have answered nature’s call outside. But is there a responsible way to wee in the wild?

According to Lisa Ackerley, a chartered environmental health practitioner, the answer is a comprehensive no. She says that although one person doing it once may be harmless, at scale it will inevitably start ruining public spaces. “If everybody did it in parks, there’d be nowhere to sit. People are already saying that the stench in certain places is unbearable. Then there’s the fact that people aren’t just peeing, they’re pooing – and they’re not going to be washing their hands in the park. That’s irresponsible.”

According to the World Health Organization, hand hygiene is the single most important measure for public health, says Ackerley: “We’re thinking a lot about coronavirus, but people could carry other illnesses and not realise.” She cites norovirus, for example.

Meanwhile, says Ackerley: “Even the smallest amount of poo on a beach can severely affect water quality.” And, although going to the toilet in the sea is relatively harmless, it can be a problem in smaller bodies of water. In 2012, Time described how a lake in Germany had to close when urination caused an algae bloom that poisoned all the fish.

People need to think about toilets before they go out, says Ackerley: “It’s a matter of planning. If you think you won’t be able to go to the toilet because you’re too far away from home, and there are no public toilets open, perhaps you shouldn’t be going to that place.”

But plans can go awry, and, in a pinch, people may be left with no other choice. Dylan, 28, intended to use the public toilets on a long walk through London, but discovered they were closed. “I found an area of thick bushes and made sure I was totally out of view. When I was halfway through peeing, I heard a bleep and turned to see two guys in hi-vis jackets standing behind me. They weren’t police; they were park officers I think. They scanned my ID, and gave me a fine.” The fine of £195 was reduced to £95 when Dylan explained that he was out of work and waiting for universal credit. “But that is my current food budget for the month. It seems excessive.”

He explained to the council that he had no alternative and that the toilets were closed. “They said it’s not their responsibility to provide the public with the place to urinate, but I actually kind of think it is.” That is not a legal obligation, however, which is partly why there is just one public toilet per 12,500 people in England.

Then there is the issue of safely using whichever scant facilities are available. A survey by Unilever found that 87% of people across Britain are worried about contracting Covid-19 from surfaces they touch in public places, with a third needing particular assurances about small businesses and independent venues.

Currently, residents of England are able to use the toilets of friends and families during visits to their gardens, if unavoidable. In these circumstances, the government advice is to “avoid touching surfaces and if you use the toilet wash your hands thoroughly, wipe down surfaces, use separate or paper towels and wash or dispose of them safely after use.” Ackerley says this advice should be used when visiting any shared toilet. Social distancing should also be observed in toilet queues.

As far as reopening toilets goes, there is a lot to consider. Smaller venues with just a few toilets may not be able to keep them all open if the distance between cubicles is less than 2 metres. Then there is the greater need for handwashing facilities. Could coronavirus signal the end of the public urinal to make way for cubicles with sinks? Ackerley is not so sure.

“I’d like to see better design of public toilets so that you don’t have to go through a myriad of doors to get to them. In France you used to have pissoirs [public urinals], where people could walk in without touching anything. I think it’s the time to think about that more. If you’re a bloke and you need to pee, you could just walk into a pissoir. That’d be so much better than going against a tree, wouldn’t it?”

Particularly when you consider that increasingly it’s not just men going against the tree. The Sheewee, a device that helps women to urinate standing up without exposing themselves, has seen sales increase by 700% during the lockdown.

“We could even have some of the old squatting toilets that they have in other countries,” says Acklerley. These are hands-free systems, where the flush is a pedal on the floor. “We need to rethink toilets and not dismiss some of the things we used to use. A lot of the older ways may well have been very good.”